Documentary for the Future
by Sonya Childress & Sahar Driver | reprinted from Color Congress
The last few years have been tectonic for the U.S. society and culture, and this has been true for those of us working in the documentary field as well. While navigating instability in the field, people of color and other marginalized communities mobilized to keep our people safe from life-threatening illness, from pandemic-fueled hate against Asian Americans, from escalating police violence against Black communities, from climate catastrophes and concomitant war and conflict over natural resources, whether that’s over oil in the Middle East or water in the Dakotas or elsewhere, and from the continuing rise in poverty and decreasing of safety nets.
These extreme conditions frayed nerves, tested patience and animated people to confront issues our sector has historically struggled with, like labor standards, the consolidation of power and influence, and equity and access in the field. Suddenly the pressure to address these issues urgently and publicly increased, along with the consequences for inaction.
This urgency to shift the field towards equity is most certainly a response to societal transformation catalyzed by the pandemic, recession, threats to democracy, racial violence, and a culture war waged in schools, hospitals, houses of faith, newsrooms and media outlets. It is also an acknowledgment that documentaries are one of the most powerful tools we have to educate audiences and shape public opinion and discourse. If we want a pluralistic, diverse democracy to succeed we need storytelling that accurately reflects the lived realities of our diverse nation, stewarded by people who deeply understand the experiences and perspectives of the people whose stories they’ve been entrusted with, who have a personal stake in getting the story right, and who have demonstrated responsibility and duty of care, not only for the people and communities at the center of the films but for the stakes more broadly. Creating pathways and platforms for marginalized storytellers within an inequitable field has been a perennial problem, and one that is now felt urgently.
This work is necessary.
Despite public support for equity and inclusion, we know that BIPOC filmmakers, especially women, are the least represented among credited directors across major public, cable and streaming platforms, and white male directors still helm the bulk of distributed documentaries today. Because we have the (forthcoming) research: The Lens Reflected.
We know that mainstream fiction and nonfiction storytelling often erases people of color completely or employs harmful tropes that contribute to negative perceptions and policies that affect entire communities. Because we have the research: Erased or Extremists, Haqq and Hollywood, Reclaiming Native Truth, Latinos in Media Report and Normalizing Injustice.
We know how hard it is for independent filmmakers of color to get their films platformed at major festivals. Because we have the research: Distribution Advocates teaser of forthcoming research by the Center for Media and Social Impact.
We also know that the organizations created by people of color to support storytelling by and for people of color, that center care for our communities and audiences of color, have historically operated with minimal resources and recognition. Because we have the research: Beyond Inclusion.
All of this data points to persistent structural inequities in the media and documentary sector, despite philanthropic investment, grassroots organizing and institutional commitments to equity and inclusion. The challenges are daunting, but progress is underway.
In 2020, documentary filmmakers and leaders were asking a lot of questions about what could be done to “meet the moment” and make our field more equitable and responsive to the racial reckoning. Many of us understood then that the stakes were incredibly high. Now, in 2022, we can see that those questions were met with action.
Philanthropy stepped up to release emergency funds to economically vulnerable documentary filmmakers and impact producers at the start of the pandemic. Many historically white-led institutions leaned deeply into DEIA work to address gaps in their leadership and organizational culture. Advocacy groups and collectives pushed for labor reforms and collective decision-making within documentary organizations. Documentary collectives created guidelines for crediting and equitable funding models to ensure that all film professionals are recognized and compensated. We see the collective impact of these efforts ushering us into a more inclusive and powerful sector. We have been particularly inspired by people of color and other marginalized community members who have been organizing to build a field that reflects all of our voices.
The Documentary Accountability Working Group (DAWG) released a framework for values-based documentary filmmaking as an offering to the field. It was developed by a coalition of documentary professionals who hold deep respect for filmmakers and a belief in the transformative power of their work. Because they know most filmmakers want to make nonfiction work that helps vulnerable communities, rather than causes harm.
The Detroit Narrative Agency released a framework to help film teams operationalize collective decision-making and self-determination into their projects’ legal and contractual obligations so that filmmakers who want to live into their values have the tools they need to do it. Because most filmmakers want to ensure their work not only benefits themselves, but the documented communities as well.
FWD-Doc released a toolkit to help media organizations ensure our media is accessible to the world’s 1 billion D/deaf and disabled people. Because our job is not to speak for the voiceless, but to recognize the agency and contributions of all members of our community.
Firelight Media curated Beyond Resilience, a virtual space for honest discussions and camaraderie around the issues facing filmmakers of color. Because we need generative spaces to respectfully debate ideas in order to grow together through this period of transformation.
And we launched Color Congress with a simple proposal: to resource and support the organizations that have been accountable to communities of color all along and whose commitments to the communities they are a part of have remained steadfast, in some cases for decades. Because it’s foundational to who they are and what they do.
Each effort places another brick in the foundation of a new, equitable documentary ecosystem. These offerings represent the hope that our field, and those within it, can evolve beyond norms and practices that were cemented before many of our communities had a seat at the table. We see that when communities who have been historically marginalized in our field organize themselves the result is not more exclusion, but more inclusion. And this inclusion benefits us all, even when it challenges us to stretch beyond the point of comfort, or cede space we previously held in order to make room for everyone. The result of this work will be a documentary sector that is shaped by our diversity, bound by our duty of care and our willingness to hold ourselves accountable to the impact of our work, not solely our good intentions.
The field we are building signals to people that the stories they’ve entrusted us to tell will be handled with care. Where they know that they too will be listened to, heard, protected, and cared for. Where diverse audiences have access to stories they have a stake in. Where filmmakers can walk into a room and see decision makers who reflect their lived experiences. Where stories with nuance, and depth circulate and are given a platform and its obvious to decision makers when stories reproduce stereotypes and compound harm. It’s a field where every single one of us, irrespective of race, ethnicity, ability, class, gender, sex, citizenship, or other difference is respected.
The vision for this new documentary sector is bold and exciting. But we cannot allow dangerous rhetoric and reactionary politics to threaten the gains made to ensure the field is reflective of, and open to, us all. The power and potential of a diverse documentary sector is too great a force to sacrifice in a toxic culture war.
This moment of transformation is not easy. New norms challenge us to expand our learning edges and evolve. But together we can co-create a documentary field we can all be proud of, a documentary field of the future.
Sahar Driver and Sonya Childress co-direct the Color Congress, an ecosystem-builder that resources, supports, connects, and champions organizations led by people of color that serve nonfiction filmmakers, leaders, and audiences of color across the United States and US islands.